The National EAS test and recent CMAS testing have brought the spotlight on the FEMA Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) program from the public and Congress alike.  On December 6, 2011, Representative Gus  Bilirakis (R-FL) introduced H.R. 3563, the Integrated Public Alert Warning System Modernization Act of 2011.  Also, recent statements from Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) indicate her plans to introduce legislation in the Senate soon.

While the path to enacting legislation is not yet certain and the exact language is by no means written in stone, this activity draws attention to the need for the IPAWS program to be formally authorized.  Along these lines the following are the top five issues that should be addressed in authorization legislation in order to strengthen the office.

1. Clarity of Purpose

The IPAWS Program Management Office (PMO) was created by an executive order (#13407) and has never been formally authorized by Congress.  While this does not prevent the program from receiving funding, it does make it difficult to clearly define what the program is–and is not–responsible for.  Given that public alert and warning systems include multiple public and private sector stakeholders and partnerships at the local, state, Federal, and international levels, clarity will be important to ensure there is no mission gap or overlap, particularly when so many other Federal agencies are involved.

2. State & Local Role

The executive order focuses IPAWS on disseminating a “Presidential message” to the nation.  However, the Presidential message is not intended to be used frequently, if ever, whereas Emergency Alert System (EAS) messages at the state and local level are disseminated regularly.  The Commercial Mobile Alert Service (CMAS), authorized by the WARN Act to disseminate Presidential, Imminent Threat and AMBER Alert messages, is anticipated to be used frequently once it is rolled out this April.  These systems serve as a critical backbone for state and locals systems; however the Executive Order does not formally address how IPAWS must support these systems.  Legislation should clarify the role of IPAWS relative to state and local entities, as well as to NOAA and other Federal originators to disseminate messages to their respective jurisdictions and constituencies.

3. Standards

Any future systems, policies, and governance should take full advantage of open standards.  The use of the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) and its associated IPAWS Profile have shown the benefits of reducing procurement costs, increasing system interoperability, and stimulating new technology development.  Authorization legislation should cement the role of CAP and other similar standards, so the developer community has consistent standards to build their systems to.

4. Training

Currently, the IPAWS office is developing required training for all system users. However it is not part of the standardized training many first responders and emergency managers take.  Given the significance of the activity, alert and warning training should be incorporated into the National Incident Management System (NIMS) training program undertaken by all first responders at all levels of government in the country.  This would help ensure the maximum use of IPAWS by exposing all first responders to its capabilities.

5. National Governance

While Congress currently provides oversight to the IPAWS effort, the office is forced to devote time and resources to develop its own stakeholder relationships and governing bodies to provide more tactical “boots on the ground” guidance.  The National Advisory Committee, or similar governance body, should be authorized to provide the IPAWS program with insight and guidance.  This will help the office integrate its activities into multiple emergency management domains and save it from the costs associated with maintaining its own governance framework.

The IPAWS program serves a vital role in alerts and warnings across the nation. With the appropriate clarity and authority that come from formal authorization, its role can be strengthened, and with it, our national capability for alerting and warning the American people.

Top photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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